During my heaviest role-playing phase, a friend of mine invented his own RPG that mashed up the medieval fantasy setting of D&D with space marines, 1980s-era ninjas, modern military vehicles, and Rambos (yes, plural). In video game form, that game is basically Battleborn. Reductively speaking, Battleborn is Borderlands writ large – a galaxy populated by creatures that fight with everything from axes to missile launchers, spells to venom.

Gearbox’s ‘hero shooter’ has a genius conceit: almost every star in the universe has gone dark, and that has remaining life in the universe crowding around one final light source, Solus. Squabbles ensue, until it’s discovered that a mysterious invader from another universe (the Veralsi) is responsible for this near-extinction event, and all other sentient life forms capable of fighting back band together to do just that. Such a setup allows for almost any creature design or world to be created, and for the weirdest combinations of fighters to join forces against a common enemy.

Hands-on with Gearbox's massively ambitious 'hero shooter' Battleborn

There are several competitive multiplayer modes in Battleborn, but we only get hands-on with the game’s story mode, which can be played co-op with up to five players total in splitscreen or online. It’s modular, so players choose which missions comes next, and there’s the opportunity to replay missions for the chance to earn better loot.

Of the game’s massive roster of 25 launch characters, 10 are available to us. We ran through the demo four times and so got a pretty good look at a handful of heroes. The usual archetypes are here – Oscar Mike is a pretty standard assault class marine, Montana is a heavy with a minigun, Boldur is a melee-only dwarven tank with a giant hammer, and Thorn is an agile ranged archer who has force push and charge up abilities.

However, the huge roster has allowed Gearbox to introduce some fun combination classes. For example, Caldarius is a super mobile futuristic warrior called who has a machine pistol and an off-hand blaster, a cool rush attack, and an AOR special where he boosts into the air briefly before slamming to the ground. Then there’s Phoebe, a telekenetic human with fencing swords who deals heavy damage up close, but who is also fairly frail. My favourite is Oreni, a powerful and fast four-armed witch who excels at dealing damage of the AOE and the focussed kind.

Hands-on with Gearbox's massively ambitious 'hero shooter' Battleborn
Hands-on with Gearbox's massively ambitious 'hero shooter' Battleborn
Hands-on with Gearbox's massively ambitious 'hero shooter' Battleborn

The choice of who to use is made easier with the knowledge that heroes can be switched out at the start of every mission, and that everyone starts at level one at the start of each mission. There is an overarching persistent progression system so veteran players are rewarded, though. Players can remove augments from one character and give some to another, and loot can be shared between characters, too. “Every time you come back to the game you can tweak it a little bit,” says the game’s creative director Randy Varnell. “You can find that playstyle, and can adapt play style to type of mission or type of match.”

Our mission (“To the Edge of the Void”) takes place on a frozen wasteland of a moon called Bliss, where the villainous Veralsi have opened a portal to their own universe which we must shut down. An older chap by the name of Kleese gives us a sit rep from the safety of a ship called Nova, and then we are moving through the snow towards a base. As we progress, we are taunted by the game’s big bad, Rendain. “Solus will fall and there’s nothing you can do about it,” he intones over a loudspeaker. We’ll see, buddy.

“We know how to make stories, and we know how to make characters” – Gearbox VP Steve Gibson.

Battles are a technicolour event. There are cartoonishly colourful explosions everywhere in the manner of Sunset Overdrive, and with five people playing it’s more or less utter chaos. The environments aren’t awe-inspiring – the base is a pretty functional space with few standout features – but to be fair there is so much going on in battle that anything more brash would probably just be distracting.

The combat itself feels a bit Borderlands-lite as there is no loot at this stage. It’s still enjoyable and responsive, but the main problem is that the difficulty is set way too low (so we’ll get through the content, no doubt), so there is little challenge presented. On top of that, the mission is your bog standard ‘hold this position, now go here and battle’-type deal.

Progression-wise our characters start on level four and quickly hit five – the magic point where our ultimate ability unlocks. This gives us a look at the game's progression tree, which is laid out like a double helix. Upgrading is simply a matter of holding up on the d-pad and pushing a trigger to choose one of two options, then you’re back in the fray. Everything imaginable is here: actives and passives, weapon attachments, the lot. Every five levels our ultimate gets augmented, too.

We fight through enemies known as the thrall, kill a warlord sub-boss before he can spawn too many minions, and eventually get to the wolf sentry, a six legged robot with a nuke on its back and self preservation protocols that are, in its own words, “suspiciously absent”. The humour is one thing that’s pretty much spot-on, and along with the beautiful and distinctive art, damage numbers, and excellent voice acting definitely evokes Borderlands.

Hands-on with Gearbox's massively ambitious 'hero shooter' Battleborn
Hands-on with Gearbox's massively ambitious 'hero shooter' Battleborn

The doomsday device on the wolf sentry will collapse the portal we are working our way to, so we must defend the sentry several times as its progress is temporarily blocked by one thing or another. At one point a timed mission kicks off: we must try to collect 600 shards (dollars, essentially) in one minute. Shards are used to upgrade the wolf sentry, or to build things like turrets on nodes that we happen across every now and then. It can also be used to upgrade our characters, but none of the game’s loot functionality is available to us.

Eventually, purple clouds gather and a large kraken-type thing emerges – "A Conservator!" our characters wail. It emits large rings of fire, but we decimate it in seconds, which triggers a cutscene that features a very large demon and ends on a cliffhanger.

We're really hoping it works out because it's a big one" – Gearbox VP Steve Gibson.

What Battleborn clearly has going for it are its cast, art, and pedigree. Real imagination has gone into the former, and the latter will ensure that once tuned, the combat will no doubt be as satisfying as that of Borderlands. The low-stakes nature of our playthroughs definitely sucked some enjoyment out for me, and it remains to be seen how creative the missions and story will get, but tone-wise its on the money. There are some out-there powers too, and the level-up system is quick enough that you won't be constantly waiting for people to navigate gun menus.

There’s no doubt that Battleborn is an incredibly ambitious project. As such, Gearbox has been testing its multiplayer balance daily since very early on in the piece, as 25 characters is a lot of abilities. “We know how to make stories, and we know how to make characters,” Gearbox vice president Steve Gibson told me. “But solving that balance situation…that’s the thing we need to do first, and we feel like we’re there.”

Gibson also speaks of a "really robust" global server system that will support the title on release, which is good to hear. But that's just one piece of what promises to be a sprawling cake. “There’s just so much,” Gibson says. “It's monstrous the amount of things you do and the different ways you play. It’s the biggest thing we’ve done.... We're really hoping it works out because it's a big one."

Matt traveled to LA to see Battleborn courtesy of 2K